Pick from the Past
Natural History, January-February 1931

Living With the Natives of Melanesia

How Ethnological Work Is Carried on by Representatives of
the American Museum among Primitive People of the South Seas


THE VERANDA AT HIGH TIDE: The houses are built upon high piles, and at low tide stand some ten to twelve feet above water level. But at high tide, the lagoon deepens and the veranda becomes a convenient land platform for the canoes which are the only means of transportation in this water Venice.
N THE CASES of the South Seas Hall of the American Museum hang many specimens, pieces of costumes, ceremonial staves, ornaments, weapons, canoe models, the outer and visible symbols of the civilizations which have been built up by the patient brown peoples of the Pacific Islands. To the hall in the Museum it is only possible to bring these physical things, the carved float and net, the kava bowl with its opalescent tint testifying to the generations of kava drinkers which it has served, the child’s grass skirt, tightly bound to preserve the carefully crinkled waves against the day when it was to be worn. But if these lifeless specimens are to be placed in their true setting, if we are to understand the uses to which they were put, the difficulties under which they were manufactured, the human needs which they satisfied, it is necessary to go to these island communities and learn meticulously those aspects of their lives which can never be enclosed within a wall case, nor caught more than superficially in a model. It becomes the task of Museum ethnologists to make expeditions into primitive communities just as those who are to prepare the great habitat groups of animals have to follow the elephant and the tiger into their native haunts.

We are accustomed to think of expeditions as large groups of scientists equipped to the teeth with scientific paraphernalia. Such expeditions carry preparators, camera men, guides, shooters, beaters, in addition to the central quota of scientists. They march across deserts or into jungles, carrying their food and their tents with them, setting up a microscopic world of their own wherever they go. Such are the ideal conditions for an expedition in the natural sciences other than ethnology. But the ethnologist cannot march upon a native community like an invading army, for that community is going to be not only a source of labor and food, but also the very stuff of his investigation. He must slip in quietly, lower himself or herself as gently as possible into the placid waters of native life, make the unprecedented arrival of an inquiring white person as inconspicuous as possible. For such an expedition there are no camera men, no preparators, no army of carriers, not even servants, because to take servants from another community causes friction and upsets the nice balance of native life. An ethnological expedition is limited to one, unless it be that a husband and wife or father and daughter can go together and take their place in native society. Two members of the same sex would work against each other, vying for the attention of the same informants, and the natives would not be slow to play them off against each other. Upon our last field trip my husband and I went together, a felicitous scientific arrangement, as there are such strong sex antagonisms in Melanesia that no member of one sex can hope thoroughly to win the confidence or understand the point of view of the other.

A STRANGLE HOLD: Native children are trained to ride in this fashion on their parents’ backs and taught that no matter what happens they must never slacken their hold. This small girl who is riding on Doctor Mead’s back is anticipating a grave emergency.

As one cannot take an army of helpers neither can one take too bulky an amount of equipment. Tents and pavilions would stand out too sharply on the native scene, tend to distinguish the investigator from the native at the very points at which the investigator wishes to blur the differences. We therefore took with us only a minimum amount of equipment, two stretchers, two tables, two chairs, a typewriter, camera, developing apparatus, and a shotgun. The rest of our luggage was packed with note paper, drawing paper for the children—I took a thousand sheets and the supply ran out in the first month—baubles by the gross, beads, toys, balloons, paper flowers, etc. and large and bulky amounts of rice and tobacco. Everything had to be packed into cedar-wood boxes with double locks, one of which sang when it was turned like a musical clock to warn the owner of the prowling thief, the other put on for safety, as there were many duplicate keys about. The tobacco had to be unpacked from the telltale crates in which it is shipped from Louisiana and repacked in ambiguous cedar boxes.

In Rabaul, the capital of the Mandated Territory, we had acquired a Manus boy from the village of Pere, who spoke excellent pidgin and would serve as an interpreter in his own village. As he was a government servant and therefore allowed by ordinance to wear a shirt, he was of no use whatsoever for any more menial tasks. In Lorengau, the seat of the Manus district government, we acquired a second boy from the village of Pere, and our insidious approach was by now well begun.

The next step was taken by the District Officer, who summoned Gizikuk, so-called headman of the South Coast Manus, because he was the one man who could make the ten independent little democracies coöperate to the extent of providing canoes when these were needed by the government. Gizikuk came, very proud and bedezined with bead work, and was presented with preliminary “grease,” no less than twenty sticks of tobacco. He looked over our luggage and decided that it would take nine canoes to transport it the day’s journey to Pere. This proved to be just four and a half times as many canoes as would really have been needed. We agreed to pay five shillings a canoe, and Gizikuk went away to muster the fleet. Meanwhile with the aid of Banyalo and Manawai, the two Manus boys, and through the medium of pidgin English, a start was made on the Manus language.

A group of small girls under the supervision of a young male of eight are rolling for themselves cigarettes from a stick of Louisiana twist and squares of newspaper.

THEY ROLL THEIR OWN: A group of small girls under the supervision of a young male of eight are rolling for themselves cigarettes from a stick of Louisiana twist and squares of newspaper.

The fleet which Gizikuk had declared necessary arrived, and a box or so was allotted to each craft, slender dugouts built up with wide side-strakes, the whole topped by a wide platform, upon which small dome-shaped houses are constructed. As it was impossible to foresee what the attitude of the natives would be concerning questions of food, whether they would expect us to share their meal, resent our eating in their presence, or tabu eating in mixed company altogether, we took no provisions, but prepared to tighten our belts for the day. And so it proved, for with characteristic Melanesian manners, our boat’s crew cooked messes of sago and cocoanut oil on the small fireplaces on the edge of the platform, and feasted happily, completely ignoring our famished presence. Entrance into native life is always accompanied by just such delicate situations, into which the average white trader or government official can step without trepidation, making the native custom bend to his whim but toward which the ethnologist has to act with the greatest circumspection. A misstep at the start may result in weeks or even months of delay. So on a Polynesian island, to take one’s own food instead of relying upon the hospitality of the natives which is always tendered with the grand manner, would be to insult one’s hosts irrevocably.

After traveling all day along the edges of the mangrove swamps, sometimes crossing the reef, more often poling our way through the shallow reef-bound lagoons, we arrived at about eight in the evening at Bunei, the village of Gizikuk. Here another situation arose. Gizikuk wished us to stay in his village; but Bunei was smaller than Pere—this had been ascertained from the census—and as I wanted particularly to study children, it was necessary for the village to be large. Furthermore, we had two boys from Pere who might be miserable in Bunei. But if Gizikuk were really a chief, as he claimed to be, to offend him by refusing to make his capital our headquarters would have been fatal. However, we bet on his authority being a mere matter of personality and government backing (a guess which subsequent experience proved to be correct), and we insisted, to his great disgruntlement, upon pushing ahead to Pere. At midnight the fleet of canoes, under full sail, swept into the moonlit lagoon village, between the rows of pile-built houses, up to the doors of the “House Kiap,” the government barracks, where we took up our temporary abode.


THE ENTREPRENEUR OF THE VILLAGE: Paleao had been a German police boy and learned the value of some of the white men’s ways. Back in his native village he was quick to take advantage of the trade possibilities which a white man offered. He was “shoot boy” for the expedition and managed the convoys which brought out its stores.

The “House Kiap” is in the village, built by government order to accommodate traveling officials and other white men, but it is distinctly not of it. From its narrow walls, 14 x 12, we again temporized, learned more of the language, tried to get an accurate enough picture of the social scene, so as to know whom to trust, and whom it was dangerous to displease. Meanwhile, through our two boys, and another and then another who were speedily added to our menage, we let it be known that we wished to learn the language and witness all the important events in the lives of the people. For one to understand the onslaught to which we were subjected by such an invitation it is necessary to remember that these people have had only one kind of contact with white people, as inferiors, either as work boys or merely as native British subjects dealing with occasional government officials very much on their dignity. The house of a white man, any house in which a white man took up temporary quarters, was forbidden to the native, except in his servant capacity as cook or house boy. Missionaries, who must use softer methods to entice the heathen into the fold, had never been among the Manus. Into this setting stepped ethnologists who could not work unless all these carefully constructed barriers for the peace of the white invader were summarily shattered. To the native it was as if we had hung up a shingle saying “We want to be bothered. We aren’t like other white people,” and they responded to this chance of a lifetime with great vigor. All day the house was crowded and not until midnight was there any peace.

We set about having a native house built, and the clan of Pere proper courteously accorded us the privilege of building our house abutting on one of the two small bits of land which are used as village greens and dancing grounds. But obtaining a house site was not obtaining a house. The thatch had to be bought in lots of ten shingles each, from the land people. Payment had to be made in advance, then runners sent out to collect. It took two months before a large thatched structure on piles was almost ready to receive us. Before it was finished I came down with malaria, and within two days three of our boys were down also. In Manus, all sickness is due to the spirits, and an elder of the other end of the village, who was anxious to hasten our removal to his section, divined the cause of the illness as the malicious work of a dead police boy, appropriately domiciled in the “House Kiap.” Very solemn, he sat on the floor and explained that neither the boys nor I would recover until we moved into the new and uncompleted house. I balked for twenty-four hours, as the prospect of moving with half the household sick was not enticing; then a fourth boy came down with the fever, and we moved to a doorless, stepless dwelling, where the cook house had no floor. Such intimate participation in the religious and social life of the community is inconvenient and wearing, but it is the only way in which the necessary knowledge of native society can be obtained. And the way is full of pitfalls. I shall never forget the panic caused among a group of visitors, early in our stay, when my husband complied with one person’s tentative request that he pronounce my name. Several people almost fell into the sea in their horrified retreat from such blasphemous behavior.

The endless tabus upon mentioning the names of any relative-in-law in a person’s presence make it necessary to know the social organization of the village by heart, all the past marriages, the present marriages, the contemplated marriages. In addition it is necessary to know each person’s three or four names. Even then one is continually trespassing, as when I inadvertently sneezed in the presence of a woman whose daughter was engaged to a youth named “Sneeze.” There are relatives-in-law who may not look at each other, and it was necessary to construct a house with several exits, so that mothers-in-law could depart as sons-in-law entered, for it is always the women who have to do the running away. On one occasion, when I was alone in the village, and had added to my household of six small boys and two girls, a man and his wife, there were so many complicated relationships that the only place where Ngaoli my seventeen-year-old-girl could eat, without transgressing, was huddled in a corner behind the bed. And the linguistic confusion which resulted from getting a new cook boy who was the brother-in-law of three of the other boys, was terrifying. One could not say his name in front of them, but must refer to him grandiloquently as “the husband of Pondramet” (their sister); if he were also in the room, even this would not serve, as his wife’s name could not be mentioned in his presence.


PLAYING AT BEING A WHITE MAN: In the native conception a white man is always sitting on a chair writing or reading a book. Ponkob, aged three, is attempting to imitate these alien manners. His left foot betrays the intense strain under which he is laboring.

A large part of one’s time in these remote villages is taken up with doctoring, as there is no doctor within a day’s journey and often not one as near. Here again there are many dangers. To give medicine to someone who may die, is to risk crippling one’s field work, as the natives may blame one for the resulting death. The children were continually fainting from malaria; a fact which was advertised to the entire village by the wails of the mother. The prescribed method of bringing the child around was for a hundred people to collect in the house, all the female relatives of the child gathering close about it, wailing, for which expression of affection they were subsequently paid, while some important man, or possibly two, stirred bowls of water with long sticks and invoked their guardian ghosts’ aid in returning the child’s purloined soul stuff. It was a simple matter to thrust a bottle of aromatic spirits of ammonia under the children’s noses, but the natives never admitted that this brought them to, insisting that the spitting and coughing were signs that the spirits disliked the horrid medicine.

Sometimes, however, my doctoring brought rich rewards. There was one tall, shaggy-headed sorcerer, with one injured eye and a bad case of ringworm, who sought my aid to cure his disfigured skin. Day after day he came to be treated, while I supervised the application by one of the small boys of a stronger lotion than the natives were allowed to have themselves. After about two months Pataliyan was cured, and made me the confidant of his projected elopement with a widow. The wrath of the ghostly husband shook the village and killed an unfortunate woman go-between, and the whole village was thrown into confusion—which was priceless to the ethnologist—all from a steady application of ringworm medicine to make the lover beautiful and desirable to a much wooed and most excellent maker of pots.

The children were my chief concern, as I was trying to add to our knowledge of child psychology at the same time that I worked on the general ethnological background of the people. By selecting the oldest boys of the adolescent group, youngsters of about fourteen, as house boys, we were able to attract all the rest of the children to our little patch of back yard. Each fourteen-year-old had a ten-year-old slavey, who in turn delegated the disagreeable aspects of his task to a six-year-old. Dinner was often prepared buy a dozen small hands, one small boy tending each pot, faithfully blowing up the twig fire underneath it. The little girls were enlisted to pluck the wild pigeons and to fetch the fire wood. I was making a collection of drawings by the savage little youngsters who had never seen paper or pencil before, and this practically disrupted the household. Every available square inch of the table, box, or trunk surface was preëmpted by children engaged in drawing. They would have drawn all night happily, had I permitted them, and they came to wake me before dawn with requests for “paypa.” Getting meals prepared or floors cleaned in this general nursery-school atmosphere was often difficult and always accomplished in the midst of a terrific din of happy insistent voices.

Photography demanded more organization. In that climate films have to be developed at once; there is no packing them off to the dark room of a commercial photographer. This meant working at night. Water had to be brought from the mainland almost a mile away, and the only water fit for photography came from a “place of blood” where some of the ancestors of the village had been slain. Such blood lingers and has a bad habit of entering the bodies of the descendants who are foolhardy enough to approach within its death-dealing atmosphere. So it took many sticks of tobacco to obtain a large enough supply of water for washing films. If the water ran out, there was no remedy, for no one would venture into that fearful place after dark. As there were many films to be washed, we trained a squad of native children as helpers, retaining two extra children, one to watch that no torch-lit canoes came near the house and one to scratch the backs of the other children so that they wouldn’t drop the films which they were washing.

By such devious means and amid such peculiar surroundings, we worked our way into native life, until our house was known generally as the “kamal” or club house, because it was always so crowded. From the native children which I had assembled into a household, it was possible to reach out into their respective homes, and to follow the details of the ceremonies, quarrels, and reconciliations which went on within the thatched walls of other houses. By oneself assuming the tabus and duties, the privileges, and obligations of a native woman, as much as possible, one receives in return the confidence of the women and learns the carefully guarded secrets which have been hidden from twenty generations of husbands and fathers. The temper, the emphasis of native life, from the woman’s point of view, gradually unfolds before one’s eyes, as do the moods, the thought processes, the interests of the group of children who sleep on one’s floor and eat one’s rice day after day. The native language becomes more and more a familiar idiom. One learns to joke in it, perhaps even to pun a little, (although I knew that I was never permitted to swear, as both of my parents are living and profanity is only permitted to the orphaned). One learns to shudder when tabus are violated, to meet the news of a misfortune with the immediate question “Which ghost is responsible?” The personalities of all these alien people who press about one all day long become as clearly realized as those of the members of a family.

Only a six-weekly or less frequent mail breaks this long detailed identification with native life, from which one finally emerges wearied with the continuous restraint, the continuous re-valuation of experience, but bearing, as a field trophy, a knowledge of the native customs and the native thought attainable in no other way.

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